Eight House lawmakers introduced a bill Wednesday that would hold public or charter school libraries liable for distributing “indecent” material to minors – and add “any cartoon, drawing, comic book, print, depiction or animation” to a list of explicit materials.

The legislation – H 6324 – would also apply to the legislative library at the State House. 

None of the bill’s sponsors – Reps. Sam Azzinaro, Deborah Fellela, Arthur Corvese, Patricia Serpa, Gregory Costantino, Patricia Morgan, Charlene Lima, and Edward Cardillo – responded when emailed for comment Thursday morning. All but Morgan are Democrats.

Rhode Island ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown says his organization strongly opposes the legislation, because the bill would “have an enormous chilling impact.”

“This makes the stocking of books that might fall under this very broad definition a very serious criminal offense,” Brown said. “The clear impact would be to deter many librarians from purchasing legitimate books for the school library that young students might want to read and should have the right to read.”

Brown said he found it “unfortunately ironic” that the legislation was introduced Wednesday, in the middle of National Library Week.

Under the legislation, a person convicted could receive a fine of up to $1,000 and a sentence of up to two years in prison. 

The bill would amend current law that makes it illegal to sell or lend to someone under 18 explicit representations of sexual content that are indecent to minors. State law defines indecent material for minors as patently offensive, lacking artistic or literary value, and appealing to the “prurient interest in sex of minors.” 

The newly-introduced legislation comes amid a national movement focused on blocking books on sexuality and gender topics from school and public libraries. One such example is "Gender Queer: A Memoir," a graphic novel by nonbinary, asexual author Maia Kobabe. It's among the most challenged books in the country – including a 2021 campaign in Westerly to get it removed from the high school library.

A separate bill introduced in March aims to explicitly protect librarians in Rhode Island from prosecution, providing an affirmative defense if the defendant is an employee of “a bona fide school, museum, or public library.” 

That bill – H 6066 – recognizes the “essential purpose” of libraries and educational institutions in making content available to the general public, and says it is in the interest of the state to protect the financial resources of those organizations from litigation.

According to Rhode Island’s legislation tracker, H 6066 has been held for further study, and H 6324 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. 

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.